We're already a quarter of the way through the NBA regular season, and most of the league's early statistical anomalies are beginning to regress back to the mean. Following a hot start, the Chicago Bulls are near bottom of the league in three-point field goal percentage, the Los Angeles Lakers are back down to .500 and outside of the Western Conference playoff picture, and the Utah Jazz are once again a defensive powerhouse.
One of the big surprises that does not appear to be an anomaly, however, is the outstanding play of Charlotte Hornets point guard Kemba Walker. Walker is enjoying his best professional season, averaging a career-high 24.2 points per game on career-high shooting from the field and from behind the arc. Over the last few seasons, the Hornets have slowly evolved their offensive attack away from Al Jefferson's low post game and toward the high pick-and-roll sets that maximize Walker's abilities—but this year, things are clicking like never before.
Let's take a closer look at what Charlotte and Walker are doing right:
Walker's pick-and-roll skill set
Pick-and-rolls are the staple of Charlotte's offense, especially the double high pick-and-roll in which the power forward and the center come out to the three-point line to set screens. The Hornets run some form of double high screen action on many of their possessions, both in half court and transition. They mix things up by using three different types of double ball screens.
The first is a basic stagger screen, in which the two bigs are separated by a few feet, one in front of the other. The second is a flat screen, in which the two bigs stand hip to hip. Lastly, there's the wedge screen, where each big attacks Walker's defender from opposite angles.
This action is perfectly designed to take advantage of Walker's skills. He has the speed to turn the corner off the picks, and can finish at the rim through contact or through tight windows. This season, he's shooting 58.4 percent in the restricted area, the best mark of his career. In the clip below, watch how the double high screen draws everyone out of the paint, taking the second line of defense out of the play. On-ball defenders are tasked with keeping Walker in front of them while also having to anticipate the two screens that are coming at the top of the key on nearly every possession. Overplay the screen—or fall asleep for a brief second--and Walker will sprint to the rim for an easy layup.
Defenders can't go under the screen on Walker, either, because he has become a deadly pull-up three-point shooter. In fact, he's one of just four players—the others are Steph Curry, James Harden, and Damian Lillard, which is pretty good company!—to attempt more than four pull-up three-pointers per game, and Walker tops the list in pull-up efficiency from deep.
The pull-up three is relatively new for Walker. In 2014, he took just 1.6 per game. He has increased both his frequency and efficiency every year since then, and is now hanging out with the elite shooting point guards in the NBA.
Most important, Walker takes care of the basketball and reads help side defense very well. The Hornets have had the lowest turnover percentage in the league every season since 2013, when Steve Clifford became the team's head coach. Walker plays a huge role in that. According to basketball reference, he's the only point guard to average fewer than nine turnovers per 100 possessions while having a usage percentage of at least 25 percent. In other words, no NBA player does more for their team on the offensive end of the court while turning the ball over so infrequently.
In addition to protecting the ball, Walker has great feel for how to create open shots for himself and others in pick-and-roll. He's scoring 1.01 points per possession as the ball handler in those plays, the fifth-best mark among players to take use at least five such possessions per game.
In the clip below, watch how Walker takes two dribbles away from the paint once he sees Pau Gasol step up to help. That half step toward the baseline draws Gasol too far away to contest the rolling big man at the rim, and opens up a pocket for Walker to sneak the pass through. Subtle moves like this are the difference between forcing a contested shot at the rim or opening up an easy dunk for a teammate—and Walker makes the correct reads repeatedly throughout games.
The double high screen offense also creates a lot of favorable mismatches for Walker. To close out a game against the New York Knicks earlier this week, he masterfully forced several switches down the stretch, torturing poor Knicks rookie Willy Hernangomez. In the first clip, Walker attacks to force the switch, pulls the big man back out on an island, patiently waits for the double team to commit, then swings the ball for an open three-pointer. In the second clip, Walker once again forces the switch, drags the big out on an island, but this time he attacks before the defense can double.
Cody Zeller and Frank Kaminsky
Cody Zeller and Frank Kaminsky are excellent in their roles as double high pick-and-roll screeners. The base option for the two bigs is to have Zeller roll to the rim and Kaminsky pop out to the three-point line after setting the screen. This action creates gravity, pulling the defense in three different directions and forcing all three defenders involved in the pick-and-roll to read and react to each other.
Zeller is especially great at this. He's among the best screeners in the NBA, making contact on the defender without fouling on nearly every screen that he sets—no wonder he's averaging 4.9 screen assists per game according to NBA.com, the fifth most in the league this season. Zeller is also a great roll finisher: he has enough power and hops to finish above the rim if the help defenders are late to rotate, but also uncommon passing touch:
Zeller only averages 1.3 assists per game, but that number under sells his ability to keep the offense flowing when the defense collapses. There's tremendous value in a big that stays in his lane on offense, and Zeller does that as well as anyone. He has only taken one post-up all year long, opting instead to continually hunt for ball screen opportunities along the perimeter. When he catches on the roll, he never steps outside of his comfort zone and tries to make a home run play. To the contrary, he simply goes through his progressions, looking to make the easy pass. In the second clip above, notice how calmly he checks off all three options for a kickout before dropping the ball off for the easy lay-up.
Kaminsky has a more dynamic offensive game than Zeller, but isn't quite as reliable. He's shooting just 28 percent from behind the arc this season on 4.1 attempts per game. It might just be a bit of an early season slump, but Kaminsky hasn't been shy about launching when he's left open. And he is left open quite a bit. Of his 4.1 three-point attempts per game, 3.6 are taken with six feet of space or more from the nearest defender, the fourth-most "wide open" three-point attempts of all players in the NBA.
When Kaminsky hits that shot, the Hornets double high action becomes unguardable. And even with him struggling to find his shot, defenders are still forced into difficult rotations. In the clip below, watch how Kaminsky's shot-making opens up driving lanes down the middle of the court. Kaminsky is very skilled for a big man and capable of making these types of plays, especially when he is covered by slower defenders.
Kaminsky and many of the other perimeter-oriented Hornets players are also very good at reading when to slip the screen. In the first clip below, watch how Marvin Williams anticipates that Carmelo Anthony will try to switch the ball screen. Williams quickly slips and catches the pass on the roll, finishing around the rim protector. In the second clip, Kaminsky anticipates that Kristaps Porzingis will hedge the side pick and roll so he slips, forcing Porzingis to hang on for the foul.
Room for improvement
These types of reads and reactions require a high basketball IQ, the ability to read and react to defenders, and excellent coaching staff preparation. The Hornets have all three, and that allows them to flow from one action to the next. Their playbook isn't particularly complex or overly scripted, but their principles allow them to go into double screens in transition, in the half court, or quickly following an offensive rebound or broken play.
In the clip below, watch how every Charlotte player gets to their spot on the break. Roy Hibbert begins hunting for a ball screen opportunity the moment he crosses half court, allowing Walker to attack as soon as he catches the ball on the wing.
The Hornets have a great bread-and-butter action in the double high pick-and-roll, but there are still some areas that they need to improve upon before they can consider themselves serious contenders. Nicholas Batum can do a bit of everything on the floor and is one of Charlotte's defensive anchors, but the team could use a bit more scoring from him. He's much more comfortable as the set-up guy, making great passes on the move like the one in the video below:
This play uses the same principles as the double high screen plays, only this time, the point guard is given Kaminsky's role as the pop guy while Kaminsky takes the floor spacing role in the corner. Still, Batum needs to become more assertive as a scorer in the offense, especially when Walker goes to the bench. In general, Charlotte needs another scorer and playmaker, especially at small forward. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist is the only small forward on the roster, so shooting guards Batum and Marco Belinelli take turns sliding down to that spot with the second unit.
The Hornets are a well-coached team that perfectly utilizes the unique talents of their star guard. They're currently sitting atop the Southeast division and have the fifth-best record in the Eastern Conference. Jeremy Lamb has been a positive in every game that he's been healthy, and may be poised to make a small leap this year if he can consistently stay on the court. The team has a real chance to grab a top four seed in the East and claim home-court advantage in the first round of the NBA playoffs.
For now, though, it's just fun to watch Walker torch the league with one of the game's most unstoppable actions.
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